Mark your calendars for next Thursday, as Elvis Presley would have celebrated his 80th birthday on Jan. 8.
I inherited my love of Presley from my grandmother, Edith Bigham, who lived in Monroe. She owned just about every movie Presley ever starred in, and had an extensive library of his records. Much of her collection was probably acquired from the Sweet Union Flea Market, where she shopped often.
And the adoration of Presley runs in the family. Several years ago, my aunt and uncle featured an Elvis Presley impersonator at their wedding. No station but Elvis Radio, a SiriusXM satellite station, is ever playing in my aunt’s car.
But I know my relatives aren’t the only ones who, to this day, worship Presley.
He is arguably the most famous Southerner of the 20th century. Not only did he have a lucrative music career; Presley’s significant impact on American culture is virtually undisputable—there is even a “For Dummies” website devoted to “Elvis Presley’s Musical Influence on America.”
Presley is the only artist who has been inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But his impact on American culture, especially the segregated South of the 1950s, is perhaps the most significant of Presley’s achievements.
Jan. 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Miss., in a two-room house built by her husband and her brother-in-law, Gladys Presley gave birth to two twin sons. The first, Jessie Garon, was stillborn. The second, Elvis Aaron, was born alive and healthy.
One of his first musical performances came in 1945, when a 10-year-old Presley stood on a chair at a microphone and sang “Old Shep” in a youth talent contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo. The talent show was broadcast over WELO Radio. Presley won fifth prize, and received five dollars in fair ride tickets.
Presley received his first guitar in 1946 for his 11th birthday, because his parents could not afford the bicycle he wanted.
It was out of a childhood in near-poverty that Presley developed what would become an iconic, powerful sound.
Presley’s music, a fusion of working-class gospel, white hillbilly music and black rhythm and blues negotiated a racial divide in 1950s America; it was a sound without boundaries. That combination of styles ultimately became known as “rockabilly.”
It’s said that as a child, Presley snuck out of Sunday services at his family’s church to attend the local African American church, where he observed spiritual singers channeling gospel and blues traditions.
In the mid-1950s, most Southern states were still racially segregated, and their radio stations only played records by either white or black performers. Charts for black rhythm and blues performers were separate, too. With a style so rooted in R&B, Presley brought that sound to a wider audience of white teenagers, and doing so, became a sensation across the U.S.
Since his death, Presley has transformed from a celebrity, to what could only be described as an industry in himself.
There is no shortage of Presley memorabilia for sale. There are Presley fan clubs all over the world. In Las Vegas, Nev., there are a plethora of Presley wedding chapels, where you can get married to “Love Me Tender.”
This year, the first-ever Presley auction at Graceland was held Aug. 14. The second auction is taking place next week on Presley’s birthday, and will include his first recording—an acetate disc of which only a single copy exits, with “My Happiness” on one side and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” on the other.
Presley paid $4 to record the two songs in 1953. Graceland has not provided estimates for the items it is selling, but the British magazine Record Collector once listed the disc’s value at $500,000.
The largest gathering of Elvis Presley impersonators was recently recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records. On July 12, 2014, 895 impersonators gathered at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee.
Searching the Internet, I didn’t find any impersonators for hire in Wilkes, but there are several in Winston-Salem and Charlotte (and as you might imagine, plenty in Myrtle Beach, S.C.).
It’s incredible that, to this day, Presley remains such a powerful icon. It’s hard to imagine how different American culture would have been if Elvis, instead of Jesse Garon, had been the twin stillborn in that Mississippi shack on Jan. 8, 1935.
Four decades after his death, Presley’s image and influence have not diminished. While other artists may come and go, Presley’s Southern fusion of sounds is still iconic, and he is indisputably still The King.